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TECHNOLOGY

Facebook's Grand Plan to Create More Customers
 

It's not an unusual move in the tech industry: You offer to generously give more people more technology--and build your customer base in the process.

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Think things are jam packed on the Internet already? Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to make it even worse. His Internet.org consortium of handset vendors, network infrastructure companies, and browser firm Opera say they have signed on to a vision of connecting the roughly two-thirds of the planet not already online.

Below, I’ll share a rough proposal for how we can connect the next 5 billion people, and a rough plan to work together as an industry to get there. We'll discuss how we can make internet access more affordable by making it more efficient to deliver data, how we can use less data by improving the efficiency of the apps we build and how we can help businesses drive internet access by developing a new model to get people online.

Sound good? Not to a great many critics. Bloomberg's editors wrote: "And, as always with Facebook, the wondrous free benefits come with a catch. Or two catches, in this case." Jillian York, a director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Huffington Post, "I don't think this is Internet as a human right, I think it's Facebook as a human right."

Oddly enough, the great humanitarian impulse of Zuckerberg sounds as though it will heavily benefit Facebook in the long run. It's not that what he did was inherently wrong or unprecedented. Many tech companies have talked about making technology available to some group or other in a way that was actually an attempt to seed the market. For example, Apple has been extremely successful in the past in offering steep educational discounts. The intended effect, though, was to get matriculating students accustomed to Apple hardware, increasing the possibility that they would push for its adoption when in the workforce.

Microsoft has done the same thing for years with its software and now has begun to offer free Surface RT tablets to schools. (That wouldn't have anything to do with the massive write-off of RT hardware, as you might as well give it away if people aren't buying.); Google is offering free Internet in the cities where it builds a high-speed infrastructure. Of course, there would be all that valuable user data going right to the company.

The basic idea is old. Henry Ford did a variation in which he paid his factory workers much better than the going wage. Why? If they didn't make enough, they'd never buy his cars. There's something to be said for organically enabling people to become customers.

But too often, companies like Facebook are ham-handed about the process. It's one thing to enable people to eventually become your customers. It's another to try to spin what is essentially a business move into a humanitarian purpose. Even if your intentions are honorable, few will ever believe you.

Last updated: Sep 3, 2013

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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